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What Are You Teaching Your Kids by Your Unhealthy Marriage?

  • Meg Gemelli Contributing Writer
  • Updated Jan 04, 2021
What Are You Teaching Your Kids by Your Unhealthy Marriage?

I’m curious…

When was the last time you switched sides of the bed with your spouse? Or brushed your teeth in front of his or her sink on the double vanity?

I suspect that few of us have flipped a sleep or morning routine on its head lately. And if you’ve been married for any length of time, you can probably agree that many of your days unwind with barely a thought—just a rote carrying out of the “norm.”

As God set the seasons into a thoughtful motion and predictability, humans became creatures of habit and repetition too. We fall into patterns that can feel just as hard to interrupt as the rising and setting of the sun, especially when it comes to marriage and family.

Legacies of the past continue. We either live and parent as we were taught by our own moms and dads, or we attempt to do the opposite, in the case that childhood was difficult. Most of us end up implementing an eclectic mix of the two responses.

But when it comes down to it, our gut instinct is to do what our elders did...and their influencers before them...and on and on...whether we’re aware of it or not.

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The Bible tells us quite a bit about family patterns

The Bible tells us quite a bit about family patterns

Take for instance Exodus 34:6-7:

“...the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”

That’s a tough piece of scripture, to be sure. The choices of Abraham and Isaac come to mind. Have you ever read about how each of them lied, claiming that their wives were actually sisters? As the old saying goes, “Like father, like son.” Whether Isaac planned to bend the truth in the same way that his father had in the past isn’t the point here--the point is that he carried out a pattern that hadn’t started with him.

Us too. At every turn, we lay the groundwork for our children’s decision-making in the future. Parenting is a beautiful and humbling responsibility. We pass along our strengths, and because we’re so delicately human, we also bestow our sins and insecurities onto our kids, oftentimes without meaning to.

Since no marriage is perfect or completely healthy all of the time, I’m thankful that God is in the redeeming business. Here are some lessons your kids are learning from your unhealthy marriage (and what you can do about it).

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Choreograph

1. When you put yourself (or your spouse) down, give up, or avoid difficult challenges...

1. When you put yourself (or your spouse) down, give up, or avoid difficult challenges...

...your children learn to become critical, doubtful, and pessimistic about themselves.

When I think about excuses, I think Moses. Goodness, that man was ripe with them at the beginning of his assignment.

What if they don’t listen to me?

I’m not a good speaker.

How about you send somebody else to do it for me, God?

He wanted to kick back on the recliner before he took a single step into the adventure God had planned for Him. Threw in the towel early.

With each passing year, kids begin to solidify their understanding about what they are, and aren’t, capable of in the world. They’re either systematically pigeonholed, or taught to dare greatly, as input from loved ones begin to shape their identities. Little ears tend to listen more closely than parents couldever imagine.

“Math was hard in high school, so even though I wanted to be an engineer, I settled for _________.”

“Girls/boys shouldn’t be _______.”

“It’s not worth it to try again, nothing’s going to change.”

And by those off-handed remarks, their options narrow, year by year. A child surrounded by messages of insecurity, fear, and helplessness learns to stop trying. They also lose their ability to trust God with new opportunities when the challenge seems too big or uncomfortable. And sadly, they doubt their own ability to discern His instructions and follow through.

Since no loving parent would purposely shackle a child in fear and helplessness, awareness is the first step to breaking the cycle for future generations. When the spirits of depression, helplessness, and nihilism attack, we rest in the basic truths of God’s love and promises.

Healing of that kind requires intentional prayer, and oftentimes, help from a trusted mentor or therapist. Our kids need to witness a fighting faith in those they look up to. In marriage, we have a critical opportunity to stand united in hope and grit, to uplift and embolden one another, and to pick each other up when we fall.

“ always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” 1 Cor. 13: 7

2. When you fight without ever coming to a respectful agreement...

...your kids learn to avoid, appease, or become the aggressor to get their wants and needs met.

What kind of fighter are you? We all have our usual go-to stances, based on how much cooperation and assertiveness we’re comfortable with. Adam and Eve come to mind as great examples of “runners.” Not only did they both hide after God discovered their error in the garden, but Adam also pointed fingers when he couldn’t handle the heat. (Gen. 3:6-13)

When it comes to parenting, couples who hide aren’t uncommon. Many are simply afraid to disagree in front of the kids—to hurt them or make their little ones worry about divorce. That being said, avoiding a fight until a “better time” usually results in a problem that never goes away. Blow-ups happen later down the road, or spouses wind up seething quietly in an effort to keep the peace. It’s no wonder there’s an uptick in divorcewhen the last child finally leaves the home.

Perhaps it’s better that a couple hashes out a louder-than-normal disagreement in front of the kids, rather than pretending it’s not there—with the focus being on conflict resolution and reconciliation. Whether that difference of opinion is communicated perfectly isn’t the “make or break” marriage issue. I believe that the crux of successful parenting is making sure to teach the kids that a respectful and kind outcome is possible.

The outcomes of fighting dirty, or alternatively, avoiding conflict all cost, are troubling. Children who never learn to work through conflict to a responsible end wind up developing behaviors such as:

a. avoiding or bending the truth out of fear
b. denying thoughts and feelings, or “checking out” emotionally
c. catering to the approval of others instead of God
d. using bully tactics to “win”
e. suffering resentment and a hard heart
f. missing out on leadership opportunities
g. enduring abusive or coercive behaviors instead of speaking up
h. suffering disconnection in relationships with spouses and kids

The possible consequences are troubling, but there’s always hope. In no marriage ever known to man, has there ever been two spouses in complete agreement with one another every single day. Modeling productive disagreement and coming up with solutions that honor both spouses is the gift of a lifetime. In fact, the future of our children’s’ healthy marriages depends heavily on it.

“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.” (Eph. 4:32)

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3. When you compliment one another solely based on work, success, and accomplishment

3. When you compliment one another solely based on work, success, and accomplishment

...your children will struggle to embrace the gift of grace.

When you compliment your spouse, what does it sound like? Do you murmur a quick thanks for taking out the trash, cooking a decent meal, or picking up a favorite snack from the store? In the lives of married couples, these compliments are commonplace. We celebrate work success, birthdays, holidays, and acts of service without a thought.

But now consider, when was the last time you told your partner that you love the man or woman they’ve become—how patient, kind, inwardly beautiful, and intelligent they are? Now that’s a different take on appreciation.

Unrealized by many of us, our habit of complimenting success and service is setting our children up to appreciate “works,” instead of loving from the inside out. Perhaps you haven’t drawn that parallel to parenting yet, but spiritually, you can grasp the idea that grace has nothing to do with our ability to earn it.

Jesus’ message of sacrifice and grace can be lost in the application of faith. When kids experience love and attention primarily tied to good grades, acts of service, and accomplishments in sports, we set them up for lives lived as white washed tombs.If we’re not careful, we’ll reinforce this message of “works,” all the while believing that we’re being an encouragement.

Thankfully, husbands and wives can turn this pattern on its head—using the power of our words in relationships to reflect the grace of God. Not only can we begin to praise a child from the inside out, but we can model those words of love in our marriage every single day.

I love who you are...not what you do for me. That’s revolutionary. That’s grace.

“But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you, see that you excel in this act of grace also.” (2 Cor. 8:7)

4. When you ignore boundaries in marriage...

...your children learn to become dutiful, rebellious, and/or resentful partners.

Boundaries in marriage? You may be wondering what that even means, and you wouldn’t be alone. According to well-known authors Drs Henry Cloud and John Townsend, a boundary is “where one person ends and another begins.” They go on to explain in their podcast interview with Focus on the Family, that, “though we become one flesh in marriage, we still exist as two souls.”

We need to respect the ability of a husband and wife to regulate his and her own thoughts and emotions, and to personally trust that God will guide each of them. Only then can a couple express their thoughts to one another freely—unified in heart and mind.

Forced agreement by breaching boundaries is not a union at all, but manipulation, which is antithetical to God’s gift of free will. Sometimes the breach is subtle, like causing a partner to feel a sense of guilt or “should,” and at other times, it’s quite obvious, such as in cases of abuse.

Children who are brought up in an atmosphere in which spouses are continually breaching one another’s’ boundaries are likely to have difficulty with them as well.

Asking about personal preferences instead of assuming, requesting honest feedback and sharing feelings, and inviting, instead of dragging your partner along with your plans, are all great methods for developing healthy boundaries.

Kids who practice boundaries, and who also develop emotional intelligence, are less likely to view God as an all-powerful punisher. They see the Godhead as an ally instead of a bully. They’re also more successful, both in marriage, and in the workplace.


“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Gal. 5:22-23)

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5. When you make negative comments about your own body, or your spouse’s appearance...

5. When you make negative comments about your own body, or your spouse’s appearance...

...your children learn to despise the temple of God and turn toward the acceptance of man. 

Poor Leah. She couldn’t catch a break back in her day, and now it’s recorded for all of history to remember. She’s always had a special place in my heart, as somewhat of an underdog of the Bible greats.

“Now Laban had two daughters. The name of the older was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance. Jacob loved Rachel…” (Gen. 29: 16-18)

We don’t have any record about how Leah felt about her “weak eyes,” but we do know that her father had to trick a guy into marrying her. We also know that, though Jacob loved Rachel, Leah compensated by conceiving over and over again, solidifying her status in the family. It must have been quite the rivalry, and I can only imagine the conversation...

In our modern-day culture, low self-confidence and pressure to look beautiful is still alive and well. Cosmetic enhancements are commonplace, with both men and women participating. Got a problem? There’s a cream, selfie filter, or procedure for that! Everywhere we turn, there’s a reason to wish that we owned any other body, besides the one we were given.

And sometimes, those thoughts escape our lips in the presence of our kids.

“Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.”  (1 Cor. 6:19-20)

Maybe you’ve heard this scripture so many times that you feel numb to it, like some who face chronic struggles with acceptance. Here are a few perspectives to consider:

If God called us “good,” and sent His perfect self down to this tiny, marbled planet to live inside an even tinier human body…

If He found this flesh to be acceptable enough for His Holy Spirit to dwell within…

If He knitted us together in His very own image, and then dusted His hands off in satisfaction and took the next day off…

Then who are we to argue with the Creator of the universe?

Noses, body fat, and hair (or lack thereof) will forever cause humans to fall prey to comparison. But children are easily misled, and believe that those temporary, earthly characteristics say something about their worth, just like Leah might have all those generations ago.

As spouses and parents, most of us have the privilege of a physical, hands-on ministry. And thanks to this collection of skin and bones, we own a private dwelling place for the living God. If that’s not a good enough reason to capture our thoughts and control our tongues when it comes to body image, I don’t know what is.

In parting, may the words written in Ezekiel bring comfort to all of us as we persevere to break unhealthy patterns.

“‘...So why does the child not share the guilt of the parent?’ ‘Isn’t it plain? It’s because the child did what is fair and right. Since the child was careful to do what is lawful and right, the child will live truly and well. The soul that sins is the soul that dies. The child does not share the guilt of the parent, nor the parent the guilt of the child. If you live upright and well, you get the credit; if you live a wicked life, you’re guilty as charged.”

Let’s pray together:

“Father, we thank you for the holy and beautiful responsibility of marriage and raising kids. It’s not easy. We get trapped in unhealthy patterns. We react. We defend and criticize. We’re so utterly human. Holy Spirit, please stay near, bringing discernment and illuminating the righteous path that leads to Your blessings. Let our legacy be of faithfulness, not of fear and insecurity. We praise You and ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.”


Meg Gemelli is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and the founder of The Making of a Marriage. Along with regularly polishing her Crossfit participation trophies, she can usually be found Pinterest-failing in the kitchen, glamping with the fam, or reading a great book poolside. Whatever the challenge, she practices faith over fear every single day.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/izkes